Kaelin Jacey Francisco, age 19 (alum)
This story is a response to my childhood and what it is like growing up as a Filipina girl with dark skin.
A Dark-Skinned Filipina
My nana is fretting over my skin again. She’s prodding at it, thrusting a sunscreen bottle towards me and urging me to put some on. My boy cousins are thrashing around in the pool, but only my sister Makenna and I are left from the girl cousins. Through the window, I can see them sitting at the tables, eating and laughing with one another. They don’t even have their bathing suits on. I sigh before turning away and throwing off my sundress.
“Nana, I’m fine, I promise. I put some on earlier.”
She makes an mhm sound and I grab at my sister’s hand, about to jump in, but then I hear my nana’s voice cut through. I let go of my sister’s hand and she flies towards the water, bounding in without me.
“You’re getting so dark!”
I laugh lightly before stepping back from the edge and taking the sunscreen from her. I pour some into my hand and she stares so hard at me that I’m afraid her eyes will dry out. I put down the bottle to use both hands to rub it into my face and she doesn’t turn away, even as I rub the last bits into my skin to make sure there’s no white left. She frowns a little before looking at the sunscreen bottle and then back at me.
“Have you not been wearing sunscreen? You know you’ll just get tanner.”
I fight the urge to sigh, fight the urge to haul in a long deep breath, and expel it back into her face. Instead, I grab the sunscreen bottle again and rub some onto my shoulders, my arms and then even more on my face because she’s still standing there, still eyeing me like I am doing something wrong.
“Nana, I know. I wear sunscreen every day. I’m just out in the sun a lot.”
“Too much sun!”
I can’t even turn away from her, it’s a sign of disrespect, and now I know my mom is watching me because my nana is using her bangag voice and she had this exact same conversation with me before I had stepped out of the house. I don’t break my nana’s gaze.
“I just want to swim, Nana.” I take a small step towards the pool. My gaze is still locked on hers, but the sun is beating down on me and the pool is practically calling my name.
“Just be careful, Kaelin.”
I want to ask her, “Be careful of what?” but then that would be talking back, and you never, ever talk back to your elders. Even if they belittle you, even if they demean you, even if they make you feel like you’re not enough because of your dark skin.
So instead, I say, “OK, Nana.”
She goes back into the house then and my cousins all look up to say hello again – them and their light skin, them and their pretty faces, them and their fear of the sun. I feel bad, not just for me but because I know why they’re afraid of the sun. I know why they won’t swim in the pool with me and my sister anymore.
But there’s really no point in being afraid of the sun because it won’t matter how little or how much I’m below it – I will always have darker skin. I’m a Filipina girl and I am supposed to hate my dark skin. I am supposed to feel ugly. And I do.
I still jump into the pool, letting the chlorine wash away the sunscreen I just put on. My eyes sting, but you can’t tell if I’m underwater.